Lifelong learning: How to pass the test

Ways to encourage lifelong learning, from Sally Walker, Louise Rolland, Peter Noonan, John Spieirings, Varina Nissen, Ivan Deveson and Peter Laver.

Build the corporate university

Professor Sally Walker, Vice-Chancellor, Deakin University

Australian universities have long recognised the need for lifelong learning. But I think it is fair to say that they have predominantly focused on the provision of formal learning opportunities for students already familiar with higher education. The figures on the rapid expansion in postgraduate student numbers in Australian universities over the past decade support that observation: from 117,000 postgraduate students in 1994 to 258,000 in 2004.

What we need to consider, however, are the possibilities for alternative modes that provide for lifelong learning of all employees from the entry level of the most junior staff member through to senior management. Now in other parts of the world corporate universities have emerged as part of large multinational organisations. These corporate universities are providing for the ongoing education and training needs of staff in those large organisations. What do we have in Australia?

An Australian alternative: The Coles Myer Institute

In Australia the Coles Myer Institute is an example of a unique model of corporate education. It was established in 2003 and emerged from a successful partnership between Coles Myer and Deakin University. Through the Coles Myer Institute, Coles Myer employees are provided with a pathway for further learning and career opportunities via integrated vocational and professional development courses and pathways to higher education awards, including postgraduate awards. Employees located across the organisation's 2000-plus sites throughout Australia can progress through the various levels of the Australian qualifications framework, taking vocational education and training programs offered by the Institute or Deakin Prime through to customised higher education awards, such as a Graduate Certificate of Corporate Management offered by Deakin University. These in turn provide a pathway into Deakin's MBA program. Now, as the higher education awards are awards of Deakin University, they are recognised and portable in a way that might not be the case for awards of a multinational organisation's own corporate university.

And while the Coles Myer Institute is the most fully integrated model, Deakin Prime, Deakin University's corporate arm, is working with many other organisations to produce customised programs of that kind.

Retraining: New approaches to a special challenge

An identified challenge for an ageing workforce is the need for retraining workers with the skills that are appropriate for the work that needs to be performed. And this is where the Deakin Prime model is particularly effective. Education and development programs are tailored to meet the needs of the organisations while being regulated and quality assured by Deakin University. Short courses provide targeted specific skills in areas such as computing and business writing. Accredited qualifications are available in areas such as retail, finance, hospitality, IT and business management. Certificate and diploma courses provide pathways to higher awards. A number of Coles Myer employees have undertaken corporate management programs and then successfully completed an MBA. This model conforms with the second and third requirements I mentioned earlier. It provides pathways which facilitate employees moving in and out of learning at different times and it recognises appropriate forms of prior learning.

As I said earlier, the formal postgraduate market is well catered for by Australian universities. The challenges for providing lifelong learning opportunities in the context of an ageing workforce centre on catering for working professionals. This means establishing relationships with industry and the professions, and being able to respond quickly to their needs. While articulated pathways to award courses will be important for some people, it is equally important that targeted short courses are available for very specific new skills development. Organisations will be required to implement a range of strategies to retain and reskill or upskill valuable staff. One of these strategies should be investing in staff, providing employees with every opportunity to keep pace with innovative practice and technology in the context of advancement in the workplace. For this strategy to be successful there must be a commitment from the organisation to invest in the professional development needs of its staff - in a way that aligns, of course, with the organisation's needs. It also requires universities or other providers to be responsive to those learning needs.

Change the culture as well as the rewards

Professor Louise Rolland, Swinburne University and CEO, Business Work and Ageing

Incentives play an important role in decisions to learn. As we get older, the outcomes of participation in learning and development may not be the same as when we were younger. For example, we are less likely to be promoted as a result of participating in training. And we are less likely to be employed as an outcome of upgrading our skills as we age.

The type of training and the type of learning we do in relation to our work also changes as we get older changes. Workers over the age of 45 are much more likely to participate in learning activities that relate to their direct function. So people do things like upgrading technical skills in relation to the latest technology they are using in their jobs. In contrast, young workers will more likely participate in training that is more than just immediate functional training. That is, they invest in their future careers. So we see much higher levels, for example, of management training in younger people.

We know, too, that organisations want to continually renew and upgrade their skills. Over recent history, business has accommodated this need largely through the steady inflow of newly accredited, newly qualified young people to the labour market. We have had a mix of those young people who brought new formal skills to the workplace, and a small proportion of older workers who contribute their experience gained across life, often with less current formal skills.

What we are seeing now is a reducing proportion of young people coming through into the labour market and an increase in the proportion of older people. So unless we change the nature of our education and learning across life, we will see reducing formal skills in the labour market.

We also confront a very strongly embedded view about when people should get what training. When we talk to employers about participation levels of older workers in their organisation and training, the common cry is "it's really difficult to get them to engage - we offer it, they don't participate".

In one large company, as part of the recent project, we interviewed 40 people over the age of 40. We asked them about the type of training they participate in, and we noticed that very few of these people participated in the high-level management training that was offered by the organisation. When we asked them, "Why don't you participate in the training?", and were told that they knew they were at an age where they wouldn't receive approval from their manager to undertake that training, so they didn't bother applying for it. When we went back to the managers and asked them, "Why don't people over the age of 40 in this organisation participate in the high level management training that you offer?", they said they're not interested because they don't apply for it. And that's a very common conundrum: we are taught in covert ways across our life when it's appropriate to do what.

We also know that as we get older we change jobs less often and this again reduces our exposure to more tacit learning - the learning that happens when we work with new people, where we are presented with new challenges in our organisation.

And at the same time this reducing mobility as people age, both within organisations and across industry or across industries, results in reducing incentive for people to train.

Raise the returns on lifelong learning

John Spieirings, Research strategist, Dusseldorp Skills Forum

Studies are generally positive about the rate of financial return to be derived from further learning. Borland and Ryan, for instance, indicate that considerable benefits are associated with tertiary education and with participation in vocational education and training.1 Ryan estimates that in 1997, for both male and females, there was a substantial return for 35-year-olds undertaking basic and skilled vocational qualifications, studying part-time and working full-time.

Some other estimates of the benefits of returning to study in mid-life are not as positive.

The OECD estimates that 40-year-old Australians returning to study full-time to complete Year 12 or an equivalent qualification, whether they bear the tuition costs or not, would experience a negative rate of return.3 "The negative rates of return are due in large measure to the effects of taxation", the OECD reports, "as post-tax earnings for those with an upper secondary qualification are below post-tax earnings for those with lower secondary education (although not for all age groups)."4 By contrast, there are sizeable private rates of return for young people who complete an upper secondary qualification before entering the labour market.

[The OECD also estimates] there are only small rates of return for 40-year-old Australians returning to study full-time for a tertiary qualification. And these are lower than if the individual had immediately acquired this level of education from school.

Private rates of return are generally higher when the next level of education is attained at an earlier age, regardless of the level of qualification achieved. This is explained by the longer horizon over which education-enhanced earnings accrue, as well as the lower level of forgone earnings in youth and early adulthood.5

A number of policy implications arise, including the question of tax incentives to encourage mid-life participation in lifelong learning, measures to improve the opportunities for part-time study and work in mid-life, and steps to improve the educational foundation for lifelong learning through young people completing Year 12 or equivalent qualifications.

Take tacit knowledge seriously

Peter Noonan, Consultant, Peter Noonan and Associates

I'm interested in strategies which will actually blend formal and informal learning - what might be referred to as tacit and codified knowledge. I'm interested in that for two reasons.

Firstly, tacit knowledge and informal learning is actually the way in which most adults will apply new skills and learning once they reach adulthood. That's simply a fact. For people who doubt that, when I've spoken at these sorts of forums, I usually get people to put their hands up to see how many people are doing formal courses compared to how many people who think they have actually learned something significant in the last few weeks, and the contrast is really quite revealing.

The other point about informal learning and tacit knowledge is that for many people who are not experienced and successful learners, moving out from the starting point of what you have learnt successfully through tacit knowledge, through informal learning, is actually a powerful way to re-engage in the formal learning process.

But unfortunately this idea of tacit knowledge, of informal learning, sits at the moment outside the scope of the public policy debate.

Follow the US lead

Ivan Deveson, National president and chairman, CEDA

For what it's worth, I'm a graduate of two American universities and studied at one Australian university. There isn't a month in my life that I don't get correspondence from my American universities about reasons why I should join their lifelong learning programs. Being cynical Australians, we believe American universities only communicate with alumni to raise money. I can assure you that's not true. They are very actively marketing their lifelong learning programs.

Build your own talent

Varina Nissen, managing director, Manpower Australian and New Zealand

I strongly believe that it is essential that firms and managers not wait for changes in public policies to resolve their labour force skills requirements. The challenge of building capability within organisations with respect to workforce skills will require more systematic workforce planning, including talent development as well as a talent supply strategy. This is because the labour pools are not readily available or they are in the wrong location.

Jobs and tasks become more complicated as they cross boundaries, time zones, ethnicities, age groups and become more technologically driven, so the challenges of attracting and retaining talented people become strategic imperatives. However, I would counsel it would be unwise to approach the future as simply a one-dimensional "war for talent". An Australian solution to the skills deficit challenge encompasses government, industry and an education system that goes beyond formal education and permeates the workforce.

In fact, a number of our clients have introduced a concept of tacit learning for some of their lower skilled workforces. In one instance the individual has a certificate, a book of certificates, for the work that they do over a three-month period. And in this particular instance, in the food handling industry, a number of employers have joined together to ensure that the worker does gradually build their expertise.

Manpower is also attempting to play its part. We have a global learning centre dedicated to upskilling the global workforce. It is an online resource offering of over 1500 training courses. It is free to all candidates registered at Manpower and provides full online support. The global learning centre offers access to knowledge and skills information with more than 5000 hours of e-learning in end-user software applications in professional development skills, business skills, information technology and telecommunication. And a large number of these courses are also providing assessment and certification.

Tilt the scales

Peter Laver, chairman, Australian Building Codes Board, and former corporate general manager, BHP

One of the industries that is going to fail is the [one that makes] the gold watches that people like me used to get for 25 years' service. There aren't going to be too many people at the age of 60 who can stand up and say "I worked for the same company for 40 years". The workforce is more volatile these days.

Many companies have long had an ambivalent attitude to investment in training. Many companies in the old days trained their own people, particularly if they were state-owned monopolies - the railways, the water companies, the electricity companies and the telephone companies. My old company, BHP, behaved in a similar way: they used to invest a lot in training. And these companies accepted that the rest of the world would come and pinch their best people and pay them a bit more. They knew that, but they kept on doing it.

These days, with privatisation, with the break-up of some of these monopolies and large companies, that ambivalence to investment and training is greater. The ability to justify it has become that much more important.

And with the increase in the casual and part-time workforce, the argument for investment in training becomes a little bit more flawed. You are just not exactly sure how long people are going to be there before they move onto a full-time job. Loyalty these days is more to your profession than to a company.

Who's responsible? I think business will invest in lifelong learning. But business is in the business of doing business and they will invest in their own interests. Every business will try and look at the pros and cons, to do a net present value calculation on their investment in training. If all of a sudden, for example, there is a 125 per cent tax concession on training, people would recalculate and invest more. These are the sort of decisions business must make. The triple bottom line, feeling good about your corporate social responsibility, can only get you so far.

  1. Borland, J. 2001, New Estimates of the Private Rate of Return to University Education in Australia" The University of Melbourne; and Ryan, C. 2002, Individual Returns to Vocational Education and Training: Their implications for Lifelong Learning, NCVER, Adelaide. See also Burke et al. 2003, unpublished, "Human and social capital", report to Victorian Department of Education and Training, June.
  2. Ryan 2002, ibid.
  3. OECD 2004, Table A11.4.
  4. OECD 2004, p. 170.
  5. OECD 2004, p. 169.